The chasm separating the Manatee and Palmetto football teams tonight is more than 120 miles.
Manatee will be chasing its 13th regional title at home against Fort Pierce Central in the Class 7A-Region 3 final while Palmetto plays for the Class 5A-Region 3 title in Immokalee.
Geography be damned, however; the locals have more in common than you may think.
The Hurricanes may have the edge in history and experience, especially when you consider this is Manatee’s fifth appearance in a regional final in the past seven years. But this is right where Palmetto expected to be when the season started, sitting on the brink of hosting a state semifinal next week.
By the way, if both teams win tonight, both teams host a final four game next week.
That is what makes tonight so special. Neither Manatee or Palmetto will have a happy-to-be-there aura it takes the field tonight, as neither is simply pleased with playing for a regional championship.
The Hurricanes have embraced the higher expectations that accompany playing for such a tradition-rich program and have spent the season re-establishing themselves following a disappointing 1-2 start.
The Tigers -- loaded with seniors, including a talented defensive unit that has been together since middle school -- knew this was their year to restore the tradition and pride at Palmetto. They have succeeded.
Both teams sensed their seasons would come down to this -- district championships followed by long playoff runs. And now, neither team is ready for any of it to be over.
But tonight shouldn’t be about pressure. Instead, it should be about opportunity. There were 32 teams standing in Class 7A and 5A when the playoffs began last month, and now there are eight remaining in each.
“Everybody that’s left,” said Manatee coach Joe Kinnan, “is pretty doggone good.”
There is something to be said for getting this far, for conducting December practices, for keeping yourself in the championship conversation long after most of the others have gone home.
So tonight, one local team will play for a regional title in Bradenton, and another will play for one far, far away.
It’s Manatee and Palmetto, playing for the right to bring a couple of state semifinal games -- and maybe a couple of state championship trophies -- back to Manatee County.
Both should be happy to be here.
But not too happy.
After all, there is still work to be done.
John Lembo, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-745-2097.